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What would a private sector library look like?

Tim Coates, of the Good Library Blog, has posted a manifesto for the reform of library services in the UK. From what he describes (and from my own bitter experience) libraries exhibit all the classic symptoms of state-run industries.  They are not responsive to their users, they are overly complex, they are not available when people want them, etcetera, etcetera. Replace library with passport office, police service or health service and pretty much any of Tim's criticisms remain valid.

I posted a comment along these lines, and was actually rather surprised to get a response that was largely in agreement with me. Where we differ is on whether it is actually possible to get the library service to function properly within the public sector. Tim thinks (or rather hopes) that it is:

Honestly it has hard to argue with what you say. I am just wishing and hoping we can find a way to make it untrue.

This set me to pondering what would happen if an entrepreneur got his grubby capitalist hands on a library, or a chain of libraries. What could be changed to make them more attractive? My own local library consists of a portacabin with irregular opening hours and a startlingly small stock of books. There's only two or three desks for people to sit at, and these are reserved for computer users. The staff are excellent but are hampered from providing the service they want because of pettifogging rules forced on them by "head office" in Perth.

What could be done with it?

For a start you'd need a proper home. Lots of room for reading, lots of books. Armchairs, a coffee shop, a children's play area, all soundproofed so that readers weren't distracted. You would pay for each book you borrowed. If you found you were enjoying it you could phone up and buy it. The library would replace it within 48 hours.  I'm imagining the bookshop and the library almost merging here. Think of all the things innovative bookshops do, like public readings and the like. No reason that libraries can't do this too, and make money doing it.

Book groups would have access to a central list of titles (I'm assuming a chain of libraries here) rather than a restricted list of approved titles like the one we have where I live. They could meet on the library premises at lunchtimes or in the evening. And yes, the library would be open in the evenings too. Every evening, if that's what people wanted. God knows, it might even be somewhere for people to go of an evening to socialise without getting drunk. That would be a turn-up for UK culture wouldn't it?

I've barely even started to think about this. I'm sure if a few people put their heads together they could come up with lots of wonderful and exciting services that a private library could offer. And it's worth remembering that libraries started as private institutions, set up by unions and self-improvement societies and the like.

And then remind yourself that it can never happen because any initiative along these lines would be crowded out by the local council long before it got off the ground. The state is not your friend, as someone once said.  

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Reader Comments (4)

You'd have to drop that "replace the book within 48 hours" bit - book wholesalers, who ARE in the private sector, tend to be slow and unresponsive in my experience. And you're assuming that the book in question is either in print or available reasonably second-hand, which, even in the age of Alibris, isn't always the case.
But, yes to more books and more armchairs and longer hours. All things that my local library addressed in the last few years. Not as much as they would have liked.
The biggest problem with entrepenerial libraries is that libraries take up space, and that space needs to be on the main strip to be effective - but there are infinitely more profitable ways to use prime sites than pay libraries.
Feb 14, 2007 at 10:08 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames Hamilton
I was wondering about that. I did wonder if you could have a chain of libraries operating as its own wholesaler - dealing with the publishers direct.
Feb 14, 2007 at 10:30 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill
The Victorians got there first -

It looks as if the supply of "any book from London" depended on the Victorian infrastructure of railways, though.
Feb 14, 2007 at 2:49 PM | Unregistered Commenterbrituncula
Oh, absolutely. I did think about including a paragraph in the posting about where most of the public libraries in the country came from - ie private organisations of of one kind or another, but it didn't make it to the final draft.
Feb 14, 2007 at 4:24 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

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